Grappling with Woodstock in 2019

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Nobody back in the 1960s or 1970s could have imagined anything this fucking awful—Joan Baez, on America during the age of Trump

The Woodstock 50 extravaganza crashed like an overburdened shuttle copter somewhere between Maryland and organizer Michael Lang’s attorney’s offices. But Woodstock Nation crashed many years ago.

First, the planned anniversary concert. It was a dumb idea from the get-go. Not only since you can’t replicate—or pretend you’re not replicating while trying to replicate—the original 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair festival, either musically or sociologically. But doing so in an age when the host country of America is a global village idiot is beyond laughable.

Maybe it’s come down to getting stoned on corporate-sponsor beer and flashing the peace sign while posing for social media selfies. The peace sign used to mean something, but I guess we needed a war to remind us.

And Woodstock Nation? I’ve seen the documentary of the original Woodstock multiple times. It is a strange experience for one who shares the ideals of many of the organizers and festivalgoers, in theory if not always in practice.

The music, of course, is always a rush.  Richie Havens singing of “Handsome Johnny” marching to the Concord war, with skeletal scaffolding and descending chopper framing his intensity. Or Joe Cocker screaming his lungs out in front of his half-million friends.  And a former army paratrooper, delivering the most searing and honest version ever of “The Star-Spangled Banner”…honest because there were no words or sentimentalities to muck it up, and the song is open to interpretation, although I think I know what he was saying.

But outside of that…well, one minute I have tears welling up at the innocent promise of that incredible weekend. And in the next, my head is in my hands, sad and disgusted at how that promise was frittered away, with hard drugs, disco, and Reaganonomics, with yuppies snoring and snorting and stashing their wealth while the vulgarians stampeded through the gate.

No, I didn’t expect a subculture could change the world overnight, or do it without making mistakes along the way. But like Baez said, no one could have foreseen the backlash that caused this.

In 1969, I was too young to pilgrimage to Bethel without being listed a missing child or runaway.  But like many, I’ve visited numerous times in my mind: pitching a tent in green trees behind Filippini Pond; hammering nails through the night to prepare the stage; rolling joints backstage with Jerry Garcia; serving granola and smiles with Wavy Gravy and the Hog Farm; searching for Holly and Wheat Germ’s medicine bag…all the while unearthing directional arrows for the adult path ahead of me.

Now that I’m a grandfather and see nothing but a landscape of mud and garbage awaiting my grandkids, I ask myself: have we lost all our directional arrows?  Are we insane, stupid, greedy, or all the above? To find “the garden,” will I have to wait till I mix my ashes with those of Richie Havens?  And if so, will the vulgarians put up a gun shop or Chick-fil-A along Hurd Road in view of Richie and me?

All we can do is continue to hope for fewer slogans chanted and more trees planted. Hope for fewer concealed-carry classes and more Kundalini yoga classes.  Fewer Animal Farms and more Hog Farms.  Fewer police forces and more Please Forces.

Then, maybe after another 50 years, we’ll have finally gotten ourselves back to the garden.

By then, I’ll be long time gone.

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Bright Flower at Woodstock: An Interview with Rose Simpson of the Incredible String Band

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It is Saturday, August 16, 1969. As the helicopter whirs in the smoky grey sky above the farmlands of upstate New York, U.S.A., a small group of musicians huddle inside in anticipation of another festival. They peer hesitantly through the large hole in the side of the copter. The machine suddenly turns and dips sideways. The musicians grip each other, momentarily startled…not just from the sudden turn, but also the ground below. The kelly green farmland has changed. It is now a massive multi-colored tapestry. A very large mosaic, a blanket of miniscule, colored dots on the earth’s canvas. Could tha’ be the same festival c’rowd?, the musicians undoubtedly wonder. ‘Tis a bit lairger!

The blanket below, indeed, is a crowd of people. They’re gathered for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair Festival, in White Lake, Bethel, New York, and road gypsies are still arriving. The merry little foursome from the British Isles, who squirmed through traffic jams for a sneak preview the day before, and are now returning by air for its Saturday performance, has no way of knowing that the three-day event, which will climax at a then-record half million people—whom it will soon sit in front of—will become a defining moment in cultural history.

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Who are the musicians? They are two confident and prodigiously talented Scotsmen; a liquid-eyed, slightly detached Scotswoman who is missing a front tooth; and a slender, raven-haired English sprite with a mild overbite and a glowing smile. They are accompanied by a hip, young, Harvard-educated American manager/producer. The musicians are, collectively, The Incredible String Band. The Englishwoman, formerly a student at the University of York—where she was head of the mountaineering club—has only recently learned how to play bass guitar. Her name is Rose Simpson.

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In a few months, it will be exactly fifty years since Woodstock. There will be facsimile festivals, with musicians and concert-goers unborn when the original occurred, many of whom will be clueless as to the 1969 event’s significance, and its repercussions (positive and negative). There will be, and already are, retrospectives, tributes, nostalgic paeans, and a few critics lobbing grenades at something that still eludes, confuses, or enrages them. As that American manager, Joe Boyd, aptly told Scotland’s The Herald on the festival’s 40th anniversary: “Right-wing politicians still turn purple with rage when we talk about the Sixties. So we must have been doing something right.”

One of those right things is the music of the Incredible String Band (ISB). This band recorded twelve albums between 1966 and 1975. More esoteric than their British folk-rock peers, with serpentine arrangements and weird, off-key phrasings, their early records on Elektra are undefinable, showcasing a potent concoction of original songs imbued with Celtic balladry, English folk, Indian raga, American blues and country, Middle Eastern flourishes, Middle Earth imagistic lyrics…and often with a sly humorous sheen. And sometimes all in one song. The ISB influenced Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, who occasionally dabbled in folk. Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney praised them, and Judy Collins and Jackson Browne covered them. The ISB were antecedents of the World Music trends made popular by Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon, but offered a rich lyricism.woodstock poster3

The Incredible String Band’s most fruitful years were 1966 through 1971. This fertile period produced the highly regarded folk-psychedelic relic, The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion (1967), and two aural masterpieces: the evocatively titled The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (early 1968) and the sprawling Wee Tam and The Big Huge (late 1968). The core group were just two people: string wizards Robin Williamson and Mike Heron. But from ’68 to ’71, two others were official members, coloring the tunes with percussion and rhythm, providing ringing vocals, and mesmerizing audiences with their woodland-witch charm: Williamson’s girlfriend, Christina McKechnie (try “K’dist-INE-a Mc-CAKE-nee”), who went by the name “Licorice,” or “Liccy,” or…well…”Lic”; and Heron’s partner, Rose.

In most of the photos and videos I’ve seen of ISB, Rose practically jumps out. It’s not only her dark beauty. It’s also a look that appears to say, “I’m here accidentally, but I’m having a groovy time!” Intrigued by her, I recently got in touch. She is now writing a memoir tentatively called Scattering Brightness, and was kind enough to share her insider, fly-on-the-wall story of ISB with me, including their moment…This Moment, “different from any before it”…at Woodstock.

Here, then, is longitudes interview with the Rose of Woodstock.

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longitudes: Rose, until you met Mike Heron of the Incredible String Band in early 1968, you were leading a fairly conventional life in northern England. You were studying English at University of York, and headed the school mountaineering club. How did you become acquainted with ISB, which at that time consisted of Mike, Robin Williamson, and Christina “Licorice” McKechnie?

Rose: I went to Scotland to do some snow climbing on the mountains. The snow was avalanching, so we stayed with a climbing lady, Mary Stewart, and spent time there. Robin and Lic were living there, and Mike was visiting.

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“The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter.” Rose is in center, clutching the tree branch.

longitudes: Mary Stewart’s children are pictured on the sleeve of the ISB’s third, acclaimed LP, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. And I believe you’re one of the older “forest hippies.” Did you participate in any of the music on this record?

Rose: I think I maybe joined in on a chorus or two as one of the various people who were around, but certainly not in any formal way.

longitudes: But after a while, you did become a regular band member, contributing vocals, bass guitar, and more. How did this occur?

Rose: Mike bought me the little silver Syrian drum, and I played that at home alongside him. I’d learned violin a bit—badly—at school. Mike and Robin were playing a gig at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Lic and I were with them, and we just sort of joined in, wandered on the stage with them, and carried on just as we would back home. Then, one day, Mike appeared with the Paul McCartney bass and suggested I play that, too. That was a major delight for me! Vocals were more problematic, because I was not tuneful. Joe Boyd and careful mixing helped that out. I did improve as time went by.

longitudes: ISB manager/producer Boyd, in his revealing 2010 book White Bicycles, said that “One of the most remarkable acts of pure will I have witnessed was Rose’s evolution into the ISB’s bass player.” How long did it take you to learn to play bass?

Rose: I can’t remember, I just enjoyed doing it, and it just happened along the way. I like learning new stuff. Still.

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The Incredible String Band. L to R: Mike, Rose, Licorice, Robin

longitudes: Robin and Mike wrote incredibly exotic songs and were extraordinarily talented multi-instrumentalists. Since you were so close to them, how did they create their amazing music? Did they crawl into a hobbit hole, cast spells, then woodshed for months on end?

Rose: They were both very different, and circumstances changed (their) techniques. Robin was more fluid and automatic. Sometimes he dreamed songs, he said, and they came complete and finished. He didn’t really spend hours repeating and reworking, but enjoyed the spontaneity. Mike was more of a craftsman, and he did want the space and silence to work. But for both, the music was their language, and that’s how they talked through the days. They didn’t need to make spells, it was just them. Very rarely they deliberately sat down and made new music, and then it usually wasn’t their best. Obviously, working a song out together was more planned and deliberate, but the original songs flowed from their days.

longitudes: You, yourself, progressed musically as well, and for the band’s fourth record, the double LP Wee Tam and the Big Huge, you play a delightful fiddle on the Cajun-influenced song “Log Cabin Home in the Sky.” Can you recall any details about participating on this song?

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Mike and Robin, Scottish mystics and gifted artists, pictured on “Wee Tam and the Big Huge”

Rose: I could play it tomorrow! The songs became so automatic. I always loved that, because it was so much a celebration of home and a homely relationship that had a spiritual dimension, too. I also used to enjoy how Robin’s fiddle playing spun and danced around my own. So I ended up sounding much better than I was because of his skill. It also reminded me of a holiday we took together in log cabins in New Mexico one time between gigs.

longitudes: Speaking of band social dynamics, manager Boyd says you and Liccy—Robin’s girlfriend, a percussionist, and the other backup singer, who had a languid soprano—had very different personalities. Liccy seems very mysterious. How close were you to her offstage?

Rose: Very close in daily living and the physical proximity of touring. Very far away in understanding and personality. But I admired her, too, and never did manage to break through her mystery.

longitudes: You earlier mentioned joining ISB on stage at the venerable Royal Albert Hall. ISB concerts were, from what I’ve heard, intimate gatherings, and you had a devoted following, including at Bill Graham’s Fillmore ballrooms in the states. Audience members sometimes left gifts onstage, and Boyd said they especially adored you. Can you describe a typical ISB concert?

Rose: (They were) like an evening at home, with all our stuff around, talking to each other and the audience, laughing, sometimes crying together, colour and lights all making magic around us. We were closer onstage than off it, really. I so adored their music, and watching them play, that I felt also part of the audience in some ways. And I had a great fellow-feeling with the audience, because I was pleased and happy they were there. It was the highest high, I used to say. I always felt, in the good times, that being onstage you saw the best of us all, with the daily nonsense stripped away. And it was natural for all of us, not a performance of someone else, but a projection of the people we would have liked to be all the time. But then, life gets in the way of utopias.

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Rose, with McCartney bass on her lap

longitudes: “Utopia” is a key word. Younger people today, or those who might have more traditional backgrounds (both then and now), might have trouble understanding the appeal of Eastern spiritualism, mysticism, TM, organic and communal living, casual nudity and sex, and, of course, hallucinogen use. The ISB—one of the most hippie of all the hippie bands, on either side of the Atlantic—was at the vortex of all of this. But it wasn’t all youthful naiveté and hedonism, was it?

Rose: It was naiveté, but informed naiveté. We all knew very well what a tough old life it was. But if you don’t have shining visions of what could be, then it’s “Goodbye Cruel World.” We had read all the poets, etc., inspired by (what you listed) above. We understood the theory of it all, in a vague way, and we were already influenced by a post WW1 generation who had also been faced with world chaos and destruction, and saw the way forward through the same things as we did. We didn’t think through where that had taken them.

It definitely wasn’t hedonism for us, not when ISB was what we all now think of it as. We took drugs to enhance visions and learn universal truths. Sex was the way to union with the physical forces which moved the universe, as well as affirming human bonds. Nudity was unashamed closeness to each other and the physical world of nature. Communal living should realize the theories. OK, it didn’t work, and the glory fell victim to the outside world, but we did mean it and did believe it.

longitudes: You verbalize this well, and it’s a good preface to my next topic. On August 16, 1969, ISB performed at the Woodstock festival. (You may have been the only Englishwoman there!) You were slotted to perform with the acoustic acts, such as Richie Havens and Joan Baez, at 11 pm on Friday. However, due to a threat of rain that night, and the fact that Mike and Robin wanted to plug in, ISB insisted on performing Saturday, and ended up sandwiched between two raucous blues bands, Keef Hartley and Canned Heat. Boyd says one of his life regrets is that he didn’t force ISB to perform on Friday, when you might have made the cut for the soundtrack or film, which would have reinvigorated your career. Do you agree with his thoughts?

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Backstage, probably soon after arriving at Max Yasgur’s farm on Friday, August 15, 1969 (Photo: Epic Rights, Inc.)

Rose: Yes, definitely. But also “reinvigorated” is a good choice of words. We were getting worn out by touring, fame was influencing the way we were, spoiling us and our relationships with each other and the audience. So, if we had gone back to ISB as it was when I met them, willing to try anything, and happy with acoustic, we could have done it. For that one time, and on that unique occasion, we could have lived again how it was…So it wasn’t Joe’s fault that Mike and Robin wouldn’t bend to circumstance and throw themselves on the kindness of the unknown masses. “Career” isn’t a good word. We had lives, not careers, but by then that was changing/changed, and soon it began to alter the whole nature of the band.

“It was naiveté, but informed naiveté…if you don’t have shining visions of what could be, it’s “Goodbye Cruel World.”

longitudes: A few of the six songs you did for Woodstock are now on the internet. The music isn’t as strong as on ISB records, but I thought the performances had a sweetness, and showed a gentler, more pleasant side of the hippie counterculture, which at the time was such a threat to so many people. What is your remembrance of your time on stage that hot August day in 1969?

Rose: As a group, we just wanted to get it over with. We knew that it wouldn’t work with all the audience hyped up on volume and power and superb musicianship, after a (Friday) night of chaos and confusion. We had another gig in New York that night and had to get out and away. We did sort of recognize that this was special, and that the New World was dawning in some ways, but we, too, had had an awful sleepless cold and miserable night. As a group, we weren’t doing drugs to get over that. But still, to see that audience and hear a bit of what they were achieving was wonderful and amazing.

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Rose, in sheer chiffon dress, during ISB’s set at Woodstock festival

We were also sweet and gentle most of the time, and that was how we saw the hippie culture. We always worked, were not parasitic, and cared for our immediate environment and each other. We hoped for an end to war and the outrageous exploitations of capitalism, for equality amongst all people and genders, and care for the natural world as part of ourselves. As well as seeing ourselves as part of the eternal cosmic flows, etc. The time onstage was just another gig, bigger audience, but that didn’t make much difference. We didn’t get the fellowship and affection, but then that was our fault.

longitudes: Despite the difficulties ISB had, do you have any anecdotes about being backstage at Woodstock, such as meeting other musicians, which readers are probably curious about?

Rose: Not really, apart from spending the night in a wet tent with loads of people. I was told John Sebastian (of Lovin’ Spoonful) was one of them, but can’t confirm. There are anecdotes, but I don’t have time right now to think it out! We didn’t, in general, hobnob much with other bands when we were on tour.

longitudes: A couple years after Woodstock, you played bass on Mike’s 1971 all-star solo LP, Smiling Men with Bad Reputations, and accompanied drummer Keith Moon of the Who. Moonie is considered one of the greatest and most flamboyant drummers in rock. That sounds like it might have been a rattling experience.

Rose: I remember him playing, but don’t think I played with him on that LP. I did play with Dave (Mattacks) from Fairport (Convention, another Boyd-managed band), I know, and I was at the Keith Moon session, but his drumming was a solo effort with earphones, not a group effort. If I did play that track, it would have been separate, anyway. He was totally out of it when he came in, dragged through the door almost. But at the drum kit it was like a switch threw, and he was absolutely there, and as perfect and creative as his reputation confirms.

longitudes: Steve Winwood was impressed enough by your bass playing that he wanted you to play on one of his albums, I’m guessing with his band Traffic. Why didn’t you accept his offer?

Rose: I wasn’t a competent enough musician and Joe knew it. Joe put him off, not me, but I was grateful.

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Robin, Liccy, and Rose, onstage during Woodstock. (Note Robin’s harlequin pants and his guitar paintings.)

longitudes: Going back a bit…at the end of 1968, the band, always spiritually inclined, became converts to L. Ron Hubbard’s controversial Church of Scientology, which eventually had a profound effect on the group and its music. Could you please touch on this experience?

Rose: I can tell you I was never a convert. I went along with them for a while, because it was that or leave ISB. I never wanted to do that. In the end, I could stand it no longer and left. I didn’t and don’t have any time for cults, and that was not a good one in my eyes. It is also uncomfortable to say these things publicly, because it does bring repercussions…and that’s not ungrounded paranoia.

longitudes: Thank you for your candor with this delicate subject. Then you left ISB in 1971, after the Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending album?

Rose: Yes. They had changed in a direction I didn’t find OK, and they couldn’t accept my non-compliance with Scientology. I was running fast and loose for a while, before.

“ISB was all the good things that people remember happily, but we were also real people and led real lives…The people shimmer and shine, but they also have feet of clay.”

longitudes: Today, Robin and Mike continue to make music, separately. But Liccy disappeared mysteriously around 1990, and even her family has been unable to locate her. Mark Ellen of Mojo magazine wrote (probably apocryphally) that Liccy was last seen hitchhiking across the Arizona desert. Robin thinks she’s a happy mother of three, with her cult of choice. What are your thoughts?

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Liccy and Mike, scattering brightness at Bickershaw Festival, near Manchester, England, 1972 (Photo: Michael Putland/Getty Images)

Rose: Could be any of those. I tend to think it ended unhappily and that it did end. Lic was a musician in her way, and would have taken the opportunities that have arisen since to resurface and pursue that life. So I think she probably fell apart under the pressures of a life she was unsuited for. She was not one to accept compromises and would find an ordinary life where she couldn’t pursue her own ways (to be) a difficult one. Years with ISB probably didn’t help that, either. But she definitely could be living in some corner somewhere as a different person. Only trouble is that you need money to stay alive, and that means social contact on their terms, not yours, which was not her forte.

longitudes: Since leaving ISB, you raised a daughter, earned a PhD, became fluent in French, German, and Welsh, and were Mayoress in the seaside, university town of Aberystwyth, Wales. A staggering journey. You’re now writing a memoir with the working title Scattering Brightness. Without revealing too much, what can we expect from this book, and—pardon the pun—is the hippie bloom still on the “Rose” that once flowered with a group called Incredible String Band?

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Manager Joe Boyd, Rose, Mike, Liccy (Photo: Joe Boyd Collection)

Rose: My whole aim in writing the memoir was to make the record straight. Other people write me as part of their lives, but I did have one of my own, too, and that was different from theirs. ISB was all the good things that people remember happily, but we were also real people and led real lives. For a girl, at a time when women had very limited freedoms of expression unless they had some social privileges—which I didn’t, at first—it was a strange life to be part of a famous band on tour. I worked it out for myself one way or another and enjoyed it a lot. I can’t see much hippie bloom on a woman my age, but I’m not going to paint it on, either.

Just as then, I value authenticity and what I think is truth (as opposed) to physical experience. I also know that memories are constructed from imaginative interpretation of events, too, however much I try to get it straight. I guess I have written what I would want my granddaughter to know if she ever decided to run off and join a band. It isn’t a magic life, although it may be a wonderful and exciting one. The people shimmer and shine, but they also have feet of clay. I don’t want to concentrate on that or destroy lovely dreams or illusions, but I just want to make us real. That should bring people closer, not distance them. They should know us better and see the weaknesses as well as all the strengths they generously attributed to us. And I don’t usurp any of the creative talent and charisma that belonged to Mike and Robin. They were the music of ISB, but Lic and I were part of the band, and we earned our keep.

longitudes: Thank you, Rose, for your time.

Rose: You’re welcome.

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(I’d like to also thank Joe Boyd, for helping arrange this interview…dedicated to Licorice.)

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A Knowledge of Ashes: A Tribute to Tom Rapp

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“If you can’t be universal, you can at least be ambiguous”
– Tom Rapp

In 1994, I wrote a letter to Tom Rapp after reading an interview with him in Dirty Linen magazine. I don’t usually write fan letters, but I made an exception with Rapp. It was a typically obsequious fan gush: “I love your music,” “Listened to Balaklava non-stop one entire summer,” etc. I didn’t hold out hope for a reply.

A few weeks later, I got one. Rapp not only thanked me for me thanking him, but he sent a cassette of two unreleased, alternate versions of my two favorite songs of his: “Another Time,” and “Translucent Carriages.” I still have the letter and cassette.

I hope that my letter made him smile. Rapp was an enormous talent, wickedly funny, by all evidence kindhearted, and he deserved better than what this world offered him. He died of cancer February 11 at the age of 70.

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Tom Rapp started life in 1947 in Bottineau, North Dakota, a speck of a town on the cold northern prairie, way up near the Canadian line. His father was a teacher who was blacklisted for union activities, and who then became a loan officer. Fleeced for $15,000 one night, he disappeared into the woods for a month without telling his family. The disappearances continued off and on, and when Rapp’s father was home, he was frequently drunk. Rapp’s song “Rocket Man,” written on the day of the first moon landing, but about his father, talks about a man who flew between the planets, while his lonely wife and son went outside only when it was cloudy, and the stars couldn’t be seen.

(Bernie Taupin claimed he and Elton John wrote their own “Rocket Man” after hearing Rapp’s composition. Both are great songs, but totally unlike. Two major differences: one song made lots of money, and the other made nothing. Also, the John-Taupin song is about space. Rapp’s song occurs in the human heart.)

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The first Pearls Before Swine lineup. L to R: Lane Lederer, Tom Rapp, Roger Crissinger, Wayne Harley (Photo Sandra Stollman)

When he was ten, Rapp did a cowboy-Elvis Presley impersonation for a talent contest held in Rochester, Minnesota. He took second place. First prize was won by a baton twirler in a red sequined dress. Fifth-place honors went to an older Minnesota boy named Bobby Zimmerman, who later changed his last name and became somewhat famous.

(Wouldn’t it be great to locate the girl in the red sequined dress? Or track down one of the judges? Wouldn’t it be great if we could prove justice is real?)

Dale Rapp whisked his family out of the flatlands for Minnesota, then Pennsylvania, then Eau Gallie, Florida, where his son graduated high school. In 1963, after hearing Peter, Paul, and Mary’s version of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Tom became intrigued with the song’s author, Bob Dylan. He had no idea they’d earlier performed on the same stage.

He began writing songs himself. On a lark, he and three friends made some rough demos, then sent them to New York-based ESP-Disk Records, an experimental underground label that had helped pioneer free jazz.  They’d also recorded the infamous Fugs, rock’s first leftist revolutionary band, which featured Beat poet and political agitator Ed Sanders. ESP-Disk invited Rapp and the boys to come up and make a record. In those days, things like that happened.

So, Rapp had to find a name for his band. Cocky, erudite, and only 19, Rapp chose “Pearls Before Swine,” taken from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. It may be the most honest band name in history, and it actually has meaning – albeit ambiguous:

“Give not that which is holy unto the dogs; neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.”

The name was also prophetic.

The first Pearls Before Swine album was titled One Nation Underground and recorded in only four days in the cheapest NYC studio available. Visitors to the studio included Sanders, Peter Stampfel (Holy Modal Rounders), and a standup comic and clown named Hugh Romney (later “Wavy Gravy”), who tried to ply Rapp with LSD tabs, to no success. Like Melville’s Ishmael, Rapp chose to wander through the weird happenings and times as an omniscient narrator only.

One Nation Underground was released in 1967 at practically the same moment as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper. Both albums broke ground in popular music. But whereas the Beatles effort was polished to perfection and had a world audience waiting, the Pearls debut was jagged, challenging, defiant, and burst like a green shoot through pavement cracks.

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(Family Photo)

It included one of the first anti-Vietnam War songs, “Uncle John,” directed toward Lyndon Johnson, where Rapp ended up on the studio floor screaming into the mic. “Another Time” is a haunting song, the first Rapp ever wrote, about a horrific car crash where he survived with only minor cuts. While in the cop car on the way to the hospital, he overheard, on the police radio, reports of people drowning and being burned to death. He surmised that “the universe doesn’t care at all.” But…

“Did you find, that if you don’t care… this whole wrong world will fall?”

“(Oh Dear) Miss Morse” is the humorous flip side to Rapp’s “constructive melancholy.” In this song, he adopts a Victorian persona and attempts to seduce a very proper and very sexy lady, using Morse code, and sounding out the letters F-U-C-K. “Dit-dit… dah… dit” etcetera. Over the years, Rapp loved to recount the story of how deejay Murray the K played this song and was bombarded by angry calls from Boy Scout leaders, the only listeners who understood the code.

One Nation Underground sold about 200,000 copies, surprisingly good for a debut album of psychedelic baroque-folk on a shoestring underground label. Some of its success may have had to do with the eye-catching sleeve art: Rapp chose the apocalyptic “Hell Panel” from Hieronymous Bosch’s 15th century painting “Garden of Earthly Delights” (the hard rock band Deep Purple later used this for its third album, and longitudes also borrowed it for its series on Nazism).pearls

Encouraged by this modest success, Rapp made a follow-up album with ESP-Disk. I’d review Balaklava here, but I’m straining my space limit, and I plan to cover it later this year on its 50th anniversary. So, I’ll merely say it’s arguably the best record by the Pearls/Rapp, an existential concept album about war (Vietnam, again) with moments of astonishing beauty. For Balaklava’s sleeve art, Rapp chose “The Triumph of Death” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

ESP-Disk seemed like the perfect vehicle for Tom Rapp’s music. It was a label that allowed the artist total creativity, no restrictions, whose studio floor was littered with exotic instruments like celesta, marimba, vibraphone, clavinette, Nepalese sarangi, and “swinehorn,” and whose owner, Bernard Stollman, was an energetic advocate of the universal language Esperanto. Problem was, Rapp didn’t make a dime (things like that happened in the ‘60s, too). He would later humorously claim that Stollman was abducted by aliens, who washed Stollman’s memory of where all the record profits went.

Rapp soon disbanded the original Pearls and jumped to the mainstream label Reprise. By this time, all sorts of rumors had arisen about the band, since there were never any photographs or interviews. Some fans thought all the members were geriatrics. Others believed the drummer was a dwarf. While on Reprise, Rapp’s songs became less strange, but tighter. He wrote beautiful songs, such as  “Rocket Man,” “The Jeweler,” “Island Lady,” and “Look into Her Eyes,” the instrumentation and presentation cleaner, the songs no less transcendent.

Eventually, after several lineup changes and paltry earnings, Rapp dropped the Pearls Before Swine name and used his own, jumping to Blue Thumb Records for two albums.  He opened for many of the top names in the 1970s: Pink Floyd, Gordon Lightfoot, Patti Smith, and much earlier was invited to the original Woodstock festival, but declined because he was living in The Netherlands and couldn’t afford to make the trip.

A typical show was like the one in Philadelphia in 1974, during Watergate, when he appeared with Genesis and Wishbone Ash. He was told backstage that he only had a few minutes to perform, but that he could back out while still being paid. Rapp insisted on going on. And he made a bet with someone that he’d get a standing ovation. After walking out on stage, Rapp asked the crowd “If you believe he’s guilty, please stand up and cheer,” without even saying who “he” was. Rapp easily won the bet.Bill O'Leary

It’s not difficult to see where this is headed. It was a matter of time before Rapp was serving popcorn in a Boston movie theatre, his young family surviving on oatmeal. Surprisingly, he was happy. “I knew at the end of the week, every single week, I would get $85. I was insane with joy!”

With an indomitable will, he put himself through college, attending classes by day and working nights. He earned a law degree at University of Pennsylvania. He joined a law practice in Philadelphia, continuing his ‘60s work by fighting for social justice, this time in court on behalf of people who’d been discriminated against. His briefs often deviated from standard judicial dryness. One of them, filed for a man who was fired after contracting AIDS, reads partly: “In a civilized community, it is an intolerable wrong to abandon the sick and put them out to die.” Classic Rapp.

In the late 1990s, Rapp made a mild comeback. He was lauded by various British journalists and musicians, including The Bevis Frond and This Mortal Coil, and appeared at several small music festivals (why do the Brits always have to show us Yanks what we’ve ignored in our own backyard?). He also made a remarkable album, his first in 26 years, entitled A Journal of the Plague Year, with the wrenching “The Swimmer (for Kurt Cobain).” Rapp borrowed the evocative album title, characteristically, from a book by 18th-century novelist Daniel Defoe. Assisting him with the music were members of the American group Galaxie 500, Bevis Frond, and his son, David.

He also lost his job. Now living in Florida, Rapp and another lawyer became litigants, charging age discrimination, just like some of the people he’d once fought for.

***

Rapp appreciated history and the old things. He understood that old things have value. He sang about people who were flawed, physically or psychically: lepers, old Jews with lisps, lonely jewelers with cracked and bleeding hands, strangers with scars on their heads from wearing crowns. He chronicled and championed insignificant people who were lost in the ashes of time.

He undoubtedly saw himself as one of them.

bill o'learygetty

(Photo Bill O’Leary/Getty)

(Special thanks to the Washington Post and Gene Weingarten, who wrote the best article on Rapp I’ve yet read)

A Conclusion: Tom Rapp’s Lesson of the ‘60s:
(shared by longitudes)

Love is real.
Justice is real.
Everything is not for sale.
Honesty is possible, and necessary.
Governments have no morals, and you’ve got to kick their ass.
And, most importantly: never buy drugs from a policeman.

Pearl

50 years

janis

All I know is something like a bird within her sang
All I know she sang a little while and then flew on
Tell me all that you know
I’ll show you snow and rain…

– from “Bird Song” by the Grateful Dead

She fled to California from Port Arthur, Texas in the early 1960s. From all accounts, she wanted to escape a stifling environment that had branded her a freak. She was a marginal student, suffered bad acne, sang black music, and hung out with “undesirables.” The gulf between her and her peers must have been as vast as the Gulf of Mexico.

A fourth-grade classmate was future NFL coach and FOX Sports commentator Jimmy Johnson. One of them perfectly fit the mold of conservative 1950s Texas. The other shattered it.

Friday, June 10 will be 50 years since rock singer Janis Joplin made her debut with Big Brother and the Holding Company at the legendary Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco. Recently, I was reminded of her greatness when the PBS show “American Masters” aired a very good documentary about her.

Folks, help me here please: has any woman singer since Janis possessed even a shot glass of her charisma? I don’t think so. Many have tried, and many have failed.

Only a few divas have even come close to replicating her sexually charged delivery of soulful blues-rock. Tina Turner certainly comes to mind. She and Janis actually did a duet on stage in 1969 (what a magical moment that must have been). Singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi, born one month after Janis died, has a little of Janis’s distinctive blues rasp.

But I’ll be gobsmacked if anyone has been able to tear down the rafters like “Pearl.” She glowed like St. Elmo’s fire for only four short years. Her likes hadn’t been seen since Bessie Smith in the 1920s, and they may never be seen again.janis2

I’ll grudgingly admit, though, she’s not for everybody. A friend of a friend once derided Joplin as “that shrieking harpy.” And most recordings of her are pretty shabby. Her most famous backup band was Big Brother, but even with two lead guitarists, they were little more than a distortion-heavy garage band.

Many people, especially women, can’t understand her appeal. Although never crude, Janis was wild, uninhibited, and boldly sexual. Which probably explains her biggest fans: horny young men. Some people prefer subtlety in their music and performers. And Janis was anything but subtle.

On stage I make love to 25,000 people. And then I go home alone.

Similar to her Haight-Ashbury friends, the Grateful Dead, Janis had to be seen and heard in a live setting. She was more about the moment than the artifact. One of her greatest performances is captured in D.A. Pennebaker’s MONTEREY POP, a groundbreaking cinéma vérité documentary about the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Until Monterey, she was unknown outside of San Francisco. But her performance of “Ball and Chain” sent earthquake tremors through the audience. The camera shot of Mama Cass Elliot sitting open-mouthed during Joplin’s performance, then mouthing the word “Wow,” is now part of rock legend.

The Monterey festival was her coming-out party. There would soon be a record contract, then national and international tours, Woodstock, and television appearances (she made four noteworthy appearances on “The Dick Cavett Show,” and Cavett says he’s still in love with her). She became the most famous woman in rock ‘n’ roll, and she holds that title even today.

***

In 1970, Janis returned to Port Arthur for her 10-year high school reunion, an exotic flamingo landing in a nest of sparrows. The reunion was bittersweet. Years earlier, while still in Texas and performing in coffeehouses at the University of Texas, an unnamed fraternity voted her “Ugliest Man on Campus.” One can only imagine how she felt at this brutal insult. Her friend and fellow musician, Powell St. John, said Janis took it hard.

But she never let it stop her.

***

I confess that I don’t often listen to her music these days – my shredded nervous system just can’t handle it – but Janis is special to me because her singing had something real and honest that you don’t often find anymore. Bullshit is the music industry’s stock and trade. But with Janis, there was no bullshit. When she sang, she pulled something from deep within her. Maybe despair.

Whatever that intangible was, it’s hard to imagine rock music without her; there would just be a big gaping hole. Janis held nothing back, and despite having to endure the agonies of childhood ridicule, she stayed true to her muse and plowed her own path. There aren’t many of us that can do that.

So, even though I don’t drink Southern Comfort (Janis’s favorite beverage), I plan to raise a glass to Pearl on June 10. As another friend once told me with great emotion, one who actually knew her: “She was one helluva woman.”

But, in truth, she was a little girl.

…Don’t you cry
Dry your eyes on the wind.

4-18-69_NY_by Elliot Landy

In New York City, April, 1969.  Photo copyright Elliot Landy